When the poet and art critic Bill Berkson passed away in 2016, he left behind a notebook full of fragments and notes about his close and decisive friendship with Frank O’Hara. Apparently, he had been planning for many years to write a substantial study of O’Hara’s work, but was never able to complete the project.
Now, readers have the opportunity to see the notes he had gathered in an unusual form: in February, MIT Press will publish A Frank O’Hara Notebook, “an exact-scale photographic reproduction of Berkson’s handwritten notebook”:
This volume reproduces the sketchbook in which Berkson gathered notes, images, and poems about O’Hara, focusing on his memories of their collaborations in New York, from their initial meeting in 1960 to O’Hara’s untimely death in 1966. A Frank O’Hara Notebook offers a fascinating first-person account of the heyday of O’Hara’s creative life, and memorably sketches the heady social milieus of the poetry and art worlds of New York that O’Hara inhabited in the early 1960s.
But you don’t need to wait until February to see some of the contents of Berkson’s notebook. The current issue of Poetry magazine features a great selection, which gives us a glimpse of an intimate handwritten archive of Berkson’s O’Hara-iana.
It includes memories of the party at which Berkson’s first met O’Hara (after being correctly warned by his mentor Kenneth Koch that O’Hara “would become something of a germ in your life”):
A list of pithy quotations from O’Hara’s work (which includes some personal favorites of mine as well):
A catalog of some favorite O’Hara books (including Joyce’s Ulysses, Sir Thomas Wyatt, William Carlos Williams, and Arthur Rimbaud) which Berkson labels “A (Mini) Frank O’Hara Library”:
It also features some fascinating little snippets of memory, including a 1962 argument Berkson had with O’Hara about Vietnam (in which he accused O’Hara of being a “just a sentimental Communist”) and a memory about the time O’Hara was enjoying Jack Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels, but needed to stop halfway through because he found it “too depressing.”
This selection and the forthcoming notebook are a valuable companion to another important posthumous book of Berkson’s writing, Since When: A Memoir in Pieces, recently published by Coffee House Press (a book which I hope to have more to say about soon). In the meantime, head over to Poetry to see a slideshow of the facsimile pages from Berkson’s Frank O’Hara Notebook.
The excerpt in @poetry magazine is compulsively readable — especially the parts about the 9-hour “elbow conversation” and Berkson’s own obsession with Frank’s library.